Chyrstyn Mariah Fentroy

Brooke Trisolini, Courtesy Boston Ballet

My Experience as a Black Ballerina in a World of Implicit Bias

I remember the first year that I competed at the Youth America Grand Prix. I was 17 years old and particularly excited to be participating in a competition that focused on ballet. First up for my age group was classical, where I danced Kitri's Act I variation showing off all of my strengths: personality, speed and the ability to jump and turn. I felt really proud of how it went—imperfect, but not terrible.

The next day I performed my contemporary solo, a dance I choreographed to a jazzy version of The Beatles' "Blackbird." I danced in bare feet with my natural hair out. Halfway through the solo I forgot the steps and improvised my way through the rest. I felt mortified, defeated and heartbroken. Later that day, I was pulled aside by one of the competition's organizers congratulating me (what?) and telling me that they wanted to work to get me a scholarship to The Ailey School. I had already participated in Ailey's intensive the summer prior and had discovered that modern dance was not the language in which I wanted to develop. I wanted to do ballet.

At the time I didn't understand why Ailey kept being pushed on me, but looking back I understand that in this moment, the reason had not much to do with my dancing and more to do with the texture of my hair and the color of my skin.

Well-intended ignorance. The ballet world is full of it. It took me years to see it. Why were the same three places—Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Houston Ballet—always mentioned to me when people recommended where to dance? Eventually it dawned on me that while two of these are well-known as historically Black companies, all three organizations had been known to have women of color at the forefront: Virginia Johnson, Judith Jamison, Lauren Anderson.

Wearing a black tank leotard, Chyrstyn Mariah Fentroy stands on her right leg on pointe with her left leg in degag\u00e9 front, leaning back slightly with her upper body.

Fentroy in William Forsythe's Pas/Parts

Angela Sterling, Courtesy Boston Ballet

These suggestions are examples of what I consider well-intended ignorance, also known as implicit bias or micro-aggressions in today's conversations regarding race. These subtle comments are put in place to remind you to stay within the box that society is comfortable with you residing in. Don't look too eccentric, don't get too angry, don't go into this neighborhood, don't, don't, don't… The ballet world, with its Eurocentric history of extreme racial discrimination and elitism, is no exception to this. "You don't have the right body type for ballet, you couldn't possibly dance there because there are no others like you, powder your skin lighter so you blend in, you're so good at contemporary." And also, the whispers behind our backs: "They have to be featured because they're the only Black person." All of this amounts to the realization that no matter what work you put in, your dancing will always be overshadowed by your skin color.

These are the experiences of most dancers of color: your friends, your peers, your teachers. Yet our resilience is clear. We continue to show up because despite the systemic racism that follows us like a shadow every day, we have the right to be here.

I went on to become a principal dancer with Dance Theatre of Harlem for several years, where I found my voice as a Black ballerina. I embody their message proudly, and when I felt the time was right I went on to join Boston Ballet. Here, I am currently the only African American woman on the company's roster, and the first in 10 years. Since joining this company, I have risen to the rank of soloist.

So, with the outrage we are seeing over the murder of George Floyd, which has sparked the kindling of oppression that has plagued people of color for years, you might be asking yourself:

How are my friends of color feeling?

In short: angry, sad, frustrated, exhausted. Personally, I've spent much of this time protesting (on crutches, I might add) and using my words and experiences to help shape the understanding of those around me. It's incredibly taxing—but I think, above all, our entire community is empowered to fight with everything we have until we are seen as equals.

Chyrstyn Mariah Fentroy stands in front of a brick wall wearing a black leotard and long overcoat. Looking towards her left, she opens her arms and bends her elbows slightly while beveling over her right pointe shoe.

Brooke Trisolini, Courtesy Boston Ballet

I love my friends of color. How do I tell them that and what can I do to help them?

Start by checking in on them. This is a traumatic time for our entire community, but reaching out to those close to you shows that you support them. While they might not always have the words or energy to express how much it means to them (because quite frankly, we are exhausted), it matters.

In having these conversations, listen to them and really hear what they are saying. As uncomfortable as it might be, try your hardest to pivot your feelings away from yourself. This isn't the appropriate time to show your empathy by inserting your personal experiences because, in a way, it belittles the severity of what we are experiencing right now.

Consider finding ways to donate to the cause. Do your research and find what place you want your money to go (historically black dance institutions, MoBBallet, Black Lives Matter, and the George Floyd Memorial Fund to name a few). If you need to raise money in order to donate, get creative with how to do that and don't be ashamed to tell the world what you're doing it for. If you're crafty you can make items and sell them, if you're good at teaching you can teach classes for the sole purpose of donating your income, the options are endless.

And then what?

Continue to educate yourself about why this is happening. Learn about the history of Black culture and oppression. Writings by authors like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and James Baldwin are a good place to start.

Search for and sign petitions that demand racial equality. One example that is particularly relevant to us as dancers is the Racial Equality in the Ballet World petition found on

Learn about the history of organizations and steer your support towards brands that don't promote hate or have a racist history or tendencies. The internet is an excellent tool for learning about the history of just about any organization if you take the time to dig in a little.

Keep the conversation going! You have a voice, too, and the world needs to hear what you have to say!

My fight isn't over yet—and neither is the fight of my fellow Black and Brown dancers. We will not stop until this art form becomes a space in which Black and Brown people are welcomed, respected and valued for their merits and not the color of their skin. We will not stop until all people are recognized as equal human beings.

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Chisako Oga photographed for Pointe by Jayme Thornton

Chisako Oga Is Soaring to New Heights at Boston Ballet

Chisako Oga is a dancer on the move—in more ways than one. From childhood training in Texas, California and Japan to a San Francisco Ballet apprenticeship to her first professional post with Cincinnati Ballet, where she quickly rose to principal dancer, she has rarely stood still for long.

But now the 24-year-old ballerina is right where she wants to be, as one of the most promising soloists at Boston Ballet. In 2019, Oga left her principal contract to join the company as a second soloist, rising to soloist the following year. "I knew I would have to take a step down to join a company of a different caliber, and Boston Ballet is one of the best companies in the country," she says. "The repertoire—Kylián, Forysthe, all the full-length ballets—is so appealing to me."

And the company has offered her major opportunities from the start. She danced the title role in Giselle in her very first performances with Boston Ballet, transforming a playful innocent into a woman haunted by betrayal with dramatic conviction and technical aplomb. But she also is making her mark in contemporary work. The last ballet she performed onstage before the pandemic hit was William Forsythe's demanding In the middle, somewhat elevated, which she says was a dream to perform. "The style really clicked, felt really comfortable. Bill drew something new out of me every rehearsal. As hard as it was, it was so much fun."

"Chisako is a very natural mover, pliable and strong," says artistic director Mikko Nissinen. "Dancing seems to come very easy for her. Not many have that quality. She's like a diamond—I'm curious to see how much we can polish that talent."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, does a pench\u00e9 on pointe towards the camera with her arms held out to the side and her long hair flying. Smiling confidently, she wears a blue leotard and a black and white ombr\u00e9 tutu.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

A Life-Changing Opportunity

Oga began dancing at the age of 3. Born in Dallas, she and her family moved around to follow her father's job in IT. Before settling in Carlsbad, California, they landed in Japan for several years, where Oga began to take ballet very seriously. "I like the simplicity of ballet, the structure and the clear vocabulary," she says. "Dances that portray a story or have a message really drew me in. One of my favorite parts of a story ballet is diving into the role and becoming the character, putting it in my perspective."

In California, Oga studied with Victor and Tatiana Kasatsky and Maxim Tchernychev. Her teachers encouraged her to enter competitions, which she says broadened her outlook and fed her love of performing in front of an audience. Though highly motivated, she says she came to realize that winning medals wasn't everything. "Honestly, I feel like the times I got close and didn't place gave me perspective, made me realize being a dancer doesn't define you and helped me become the person and the dancer I am today."

At 15, Oga was a semifinalist at the Prix de Lausanne, resulting in a "life-changing" scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet School. There she trained with two of her most influential teachers, Tina LeBlanc and Patrick Armand. "She came in straightaway with strong basics," Armand recalls, "and working with her for two years, I realized how clever she is. She's super-smart, thoughtful, driven, always working."

She became a company apprentice in 2016. Then came the disappointing news—she was let go a few months later. Pushing 5' 2", she was simply too short for the company's needs, she was told. "It was really, really hard," says Oga. "I felt like I was on a good track, so to be let go was very shocking, especially since my height was not something I could improve or change."

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

Moving On and Up

Ironically, Oga's height proved an advantage in auditioning for Cincinnati Ballet, which was looking for a talented partner for some of their shorter men. She joined the company in 2016, was quickly promoted to soloist, and became a principal dancer for the 2017–18 season, garnering major roles like Swanilda and Juliet during her three years with the company. "There were times I felt insignificant and insecure, like I don't deserve this," Oga says about these early opportunities. "But I was mostly thrilled to be put in those shoes."

She was also thriving in contemporary work, like choreographer-in-residence Jennifer Archibald's MYOHO. Archibald cites her warmth, playfulness and sensitivity, adding, "There's also a powerful presence about her, and I was amazed at how fast she was at picking up choreography, able to find the transitions quickly. She's definitely a special talent. Boston Ballet will give her more exposure on a national level."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, poses in attitude derriere crois\u00e9 on her right leg, with her right arm out to the side and her left hand grazing her left shoulder. She smiles happily towards the camera, her black hair blowing in the breeze, and wears a blue leotard, black-and-white ombre tutu, and skin-colored pointe shoes.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

That was Oga's plan. She knew going in that Cincinnati was more stepping-stone than final destination. She had her sights on a bigger company with a broader repertoire, and Boston Ballet seemed ideal.

As she continues to spread her wings at the company, Oga has developed a seemingly effortless artistic partnership with one of Boston Ballet's most dynamic male principals, Derek Dunn, who Oga calls "a kind-hearted, open person, so supportive when I've been hard on myself. He's taught me to believe in myself and trust that I'm capable of doing whatever the choreography needs." The two have developed an easy bond in the studio she likens to "a good conversation, back and forth."

Dunn agrees. "I knew the first time we danced together we had a special connection," he says. "She really takes on the artistic side of a role, which makes the connection really strong when we're dancing onstage. It's like being in a different world."

He adds, "She came into the company and a lot was thrown at her, which could have been daunting. She handled it with such grace and confidence."

Derek Dunn, shirtless and in blue tights, lunges slightly on his right leg and holds Chisako Oga's hand as she balances on her left leg on pointe with her right leg flicking behind her. She wears a yellow halter-top leotard and they dance onstage in front of a bright orange backdrop.

Oga with Derek Dunn in Helen Pickett's Petal

Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet

Perspective in a Pandemic

The pair were heading into Boston Ballet's busy spring season when the pandemic hit. "It was really a bummer," Oga says. "I was really looking forward to Swan Lake, Bella Figura, some new world premieres. When we found out the whole season was canceled, it was hard news to take in."

But she quickly determined to make the most of her time out of the studio and physically rest her body. "All the performances take a toll. Of course, I did stretches and exercised, but we never give ourselves enough time to rest as dancers."

She also resumed college courses toward a second career. Oga is one of many Boston Ballet dancers taking advantage of a special partnership with Northeastern University to help them earn bachelor's degrees. Focusing on finance and accounting, Oga upped her classes in economics, algebra, business and marketing. She also joined Boston Ballet's Color Our Future Mentoring Program to raise awareness and support diversity, equity and inclusion. "I am trying to have my voice inspire the next generation," she says.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

One pandemic silver lining has been spending more time with her husband, Grand Rapids Ballet dancer James Cunningham. The two met at Cincinnati Ballet, dancing together in Adam Hougland's Cut to the Chase just after Oga's arrival, and got married shortly before her move to Boston. Cunningham took a position in Grand Rapids, so they've been navigating a long-distance marriage ever since. They spend a lot of time texting and on FaceTime, connecting in person during layoffs. "It's really hard," Oga admits, but adds, "We are both very passionate about the art form, so it's easy to support each other's goals."

Oga's best advice for young dancers? "Don't take any moment for granted," she says without hesitation. "It doesn't matter what rank you are, just do everything to the fullest—people will see the hard work you put in. Don't settle for anything less. Knowing [yourself] is also very important, not holding yourself to another's standards. No two paths are going to be the same."

And for the foreseeable future, Oga's path is to live life to the fullest, inside and outside ballet. "The pandemic put things in perspective. Dancing is my passion. I want to do it as long as I can, but it's only one portion of my life. I truly believe a healthy balance between social and work life is good for your mental health and helps me be a better dancer."

Tanya Howard in rehearsal Trase Pa. Photo by Karolina Kuras, Courtesy of NBoC.

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Students of Canada's National Ballet School. Bruce Zinger, Courtesy Ballet Unleashed.

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